Tunes from the East – Baul Music in India

A baul performance in progress
The eastern region of Bengal has long had a history of syncretic music that finds its metaphors in a direct and not ritualistic connection to god. Such spiritual meanings have been articulated by singer-performers across the region for several centuries now. Both the mystic faquirs and the itinerant Bauls are examples of this as their music and allegorical stories transcend the limitations of orthodox and ritualized religion. 
Disorder, restlessness and madness are a few of the meanings associated with the word Baul. Such meanings are both prescribed by structures of doctrinal Vaishnavite Hindu religion as well as self-defined by the Baul. It is through an attack against the hierarchical and dominating Vaishnavism [Hindu order with ritual worship of the god Vishnu] that such music and spirituality articulate themselves and hence, often, are seen as deviant and ‘mad’. In many ways, the Bauls have eluded the prescribed order through the content of their music and often their lifestyles. 
An artist’s rendition of Lalon Phokir
Today, Baul music is quite popular as many artists are experimenting with its forms and content. It is now a genre that permeates the living rooms of many folk enthusiasts across the world. I might not be wrong in saying that the famous nineteenth century Baul, Lalon Phokir who was known in the narrow roads and along the banks of rivers across hundreds of villages in rural Bengal would find it hard to identify with Baul singers of the present day. Today, they regularly record in studios and feature on television and radios. But for all these changes, one must credit the Baul music for maintaining its inherent message and its perceived worldview.
Baul music is distinct in its lyrical content which is avowedly against dominant norms. Largely addressed to a divine presence, Baul songs describe the disjunction between man and spirituality. Declarations of love are a common feature of Baul lyrics, thus persistently disregarding caste hierarchies and religious differences. Influenced by the Bhakti and Sufi movements, Baul music is a unique expression of a quest for spiritual fulfillment through love. 
Rabindranath Tagore (right) was one of the first people to translate Baul lyrics to English
Interestingly, it was not until the nineteenth century that the lyrics of Baul songs were actually written down as opposed to the practice of orally transmitting songs. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore translated many Baul songs into English and described Bauls in his speeches across Europe as an essential component of rustic Bengal uncorrupted by the influences of colonial modernity.
Just like the vagueness surrounding their origin, the lack of the recorded presence of their music is often regarded as a political choice on the part of Bauls. A fascinating culmination of knowledge passed orally through centuries and sharp political articulations of identities in nineteenth century colonial Bengal, Baul music is a subversive, rustic and peripatetic existence.
A Baul can be spotted in his/her saffron robe with long hair tied in a bun on the top of the head and carrying Gopiyantroor Ektara which is an instrument with one string, sometimes in conjunction with a dugi(kettle drum) tied around their waste. Ghungur, doatara and kortalare other commonly used instruments. Baul music is found in present day Bangladesh as well as the Indian state of West Bengal, displaying a characteristic disregard for man-made boundaries. 
There are a few organized festivals that celebrate the poetry and music of Baul, which are held annually in Bengal. Poush Mela, an annual three day festival held in Shantiniketan in the Birbhum district of West Bengal is an event that attracts the largest number of Bauls. It is held at the start of the month of Poushaccording to Bengali calendar (third week of December) and marks the establishment of the Brahmo religion. Another large annual gathering of Bauls occurs in Joydev Kenduliwhich is regarded as the birth place of poet Jayadeva and coincides with Makar Sankrantiwhich marks the beginning of winter harvest and is considered auspicious. The last one is the Ghoshparafestival in the 24 Parganas district in March-April which coincides with the birth anniversary of Lord Krishna. 
A performance at the Baul Fakir Utsav
Over time, more urban audiences have flocked to annual shows held in Kolkata city such as the Baul Fakir Utsavwhere Bauls from different districts of Bengal and Bangladesh come to perform. It usually goes on for 48 hours and offers those, who do not seek to travel to rural events, an experience of folk and mystical music right in the heart of urban landscape. The more famous Baul singers of today include Purno Chandra Das , Jotin Das Baul , Sanatan Das Thakur Baul and Parvathi Baul but the list is gradually and progressively increasing.